Four years ago when propylene and acrylic were in short supply, talk of bioacrylic was all the rage. There were at least five ventures under way to produce acrylic from renewable resources, and several of the big producers such as Dow, BASF and Arkema were involved.
Today oil prices have collapsed and there are major projects under way to produce propylene directly from American shale gas. The economics of propylene, the primary feedstock for conventional acrylic, have historically been whipsawed by ethylene and gasoline markets. The new on-purpose propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plants change that. Propylene will cost less and supplies will be more stable.
BASF, one of the companies that might build a PDH plant in the United States, announced recently that it has withdrawn from an R&D collaboration with Novozymes and Cargill to develop a bio-based process for producing 3-hydroxypropionic (3-HP) and acrylic acid. Novozymes and Cargill have collaborated on the project since 2008 and will attempt to find a new commercialization partner.
Dow announced a collaborative partnership with OPX Biotechnologies in 2011 to develop an industrial-scale process for the production of bio-based acrylic acid from renewable feedstocks. Dow said that “if collaborative research is successful, the companies will discuss commercialization opportunities that could bring bio-based acrylic acid to market in three to five years.” That has not happened, and in fact a radio silence seems to have descended on the project. Dow is building a PDH plant in Freeport, Texas, that is expected to come on line this year.
Metabolix, which has suspended work on bioacrylic, says on its Web site that “we believe that our (bioacrylic) process is cost competitive at an oil price of $90 per barrel”. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that the average price of oil this year will be $55/bbl and $71/bbl in 2016. And the price of propylene in the U.S. will be dictated by the price of shale gas and not the crazy economics of the refinery business.
That wouldn’t seem to bode well for the bioacrylic business in North America. However, possibly it would still make sense in developing economies like Brazil or India where smaller scale acrylic plants could be built using local crop waste.
Is that enough incentive, though, to warrant the enormous commercialization costs still involved?